Using Art to Face History and Ourselves

Posted by Mary Hendra on June 26, 2013

I am an artist at heart, though that part of my identity is usually restricted to my non-work hours. On Friday, however, I got to learn and practice art with individuals who do art professionally through teaching and their own work. What a spectacular day!

IMG_1899It seems to me that art has the potential to deepen students' experience of Facing History, and that Facing History can deepen students' engagement with art. That is exactly what we did under the guidance of skilled and experienced Facing History Art teacher, Ann Chaitin, from La Jolla Country Day School.

Ann led the group through three hands-on projects that have been part of her teaching of Facing History over the past fifteen years. We started where most Facing History classes and units start, by an exploration of Identity.

IMG_1885Identity Charts are a common tool used by Facing History teachers, but Ann pushed us further. Instead of a pencil, we held a paintbrush. Instead of putting our name in the center and writing all of the elements of our identity in words, we dipped that brush in watercolors and used the language of symbols. And yet, she did not let us stay with simply standard symbols, instead Ann encouraged us to brainstorm various options to symbolically represent our identity. We each created our personal mandala, and they are beautiful!

After a gallery walk and sharing of our mandalas, we settled quickly into a second project: creating a monument or memorial. Here, too, is a project many Facing History teachers know well. Facing History has an online module for exploring the role and creation of memorials in relation to rebuilding after collective violence. (Click here to see the module.) Memory is vital for justice, for community, and for identity. In her class, "Art with a Message," Ann's students research events and people to be remembered and then create memorials. They look at monuments around the world and study the making of them, such as Maya Lin's approach to creating the Vietnam War memorial.

IMG_1886We only had an hour. After viewing historical and student samples, we chose something or somebody we already knew. Ann had brought supplies: reject keys from a locksmith, discarded pebbles, wood, and wire fragments, plastic by the pound, clay, and various other things. Our task was to create a monument - either a small model of something which could be built in a public park on a grander scale, or the memorial piece itself. After creating and sharing our identity mandalas, we were a little more talkative during this hour--a little. It was so much fun just to focus on creating!

Now we were truly on a roll! One teacher said, "It's like IRON CHEF for artists! Here's your task. Here are your supplies. Now, go!"

Our final project was around the theme we call, Choosing to Participate. Ann again inspired us with student work samples. Students start with a quote.

  • “The shadowy figures that look out at us from the tarnished mirror of history are—in the final analysis—ourselves.” Detlev J.K. Peukert
  • “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Maya Angelou
  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Ann shared a longer list of quotes, many coming from Facing History resources. This comes near the end of their Facing History exploration, so students have had a lot of time to think about these quotes and what they mean. Students then sit with, ponder, and create around their chosen quote, and that was what we did, too.


IMG_1928For all of the art teachers who joined us - or may join us in the future - and all of the non-art teachers who occasionally bring art into their classrooms, I'd love to hear from you:

  • How do you see art deepening the Facing History experience?
  • How do you see Facing History deepening students' experience in art?
  • How have or might you use these projects (or others)?

Topics: Critical Thinking, workshop, Student Work

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